Cornwall, December 1972. Three lighthouse keepers vanish from a remote offshore lighthouse. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. And, the Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm that never happened. This is the set-up for Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters.
The Lamplighters is inspired by real events, despite its supernatural sounding premise. In 1900, three lighthouse keepers really did disappear from a remote lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides. Stonex’s story updates the action, moving it to the early seventies, and to the similarly tight-knit and remote Cornish coast. The plot moves to and fro, from the events of 1972, leading up to the three men’s disappearance, to twenty years later, when a thriller writer turned investigative journalist sets out to solve the mystery of the disappearance. He enlists the help of the somewhat reluctant widows and girlfriend of the three lighthouse keepers in order to uncover what really may have happened.
There are a lot of threads at play within this novel, and Stonex has done a wonderful job of keeping a handle on them all. The pacing of the novel, with all its revelations and building tension, is fantastic. As readers, we’re fed little bits of detail by both the three men and their partners, with the payoff often coming pages later in a satisfying callback.
One of the novel’s principle strengths is the characters. I don’t think you could pull off this kind of novel, if the characters were not fully developed and well-realised. Each of the six principal characters — the keepers, and their partners — are distinct and well-drawn. They all have their secrets, their flaws and complicated relationships. The passage of time following the men’s disappearance has only served to make some of those relationships even more complicated.
Stonex successfully captures the isolation and monotony of life on an offshore lighthouse, as well as the affect this life has on those left on shore. The psychological impact of that sort of life is explored well here too, and is offered up as one of the possible reasons for the disappearance.
Stonex does provide a resolution to the disappearance by the end of the novel, whilst still leaving enough room for some reader interpretation. There’s a slight supernatural thread that runs through the novel which aligns neatly with the practically gothic setting. There are some online who didn’t like the supernatural aspect, but being familiar with Cornwall, and it’s myths and legends, it didn’t seem out of place to me. Seafarers and those who live and work by the sea can often be superstitious folk. It’s only a subtle thread in the narrative, and whilst it’s touched upon in the resolution, Stonex also provides us with a rational, and all too familiar, cause for their disappearance as well.
The Lamplighters shows that all is not always as it seems— for people, and for relationships. It also shows the danger that comes with keeping secrets, and the damage that can be caused by a lack of communication. Tragically, the need for conversation often only becomes apparent after it’s too late.
The Lamplighters is a compelling and gripping read, with a satisfying conclusion. With strong characterisation, clever plotting, and heaps of tension and mystery, there’s a lot to love here. This might be Stonex’s first book published under her own name, but it certainly won’t be her last!